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Guest: Anthony Lewis

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Listen Now

Ignorance is the enemy of freedom and self-government, a powerful tool for people in power, says Anthony Lewis, a legendary journalist. As the nation’s sovereigns, ordinary people have to know what's going on and have the courage to act on what we know.
“We've been through a lot of repressions in this country. It’s a wonderful system but it hasn't always functioned perfectly,” Mr. Lewis says. “Those fourteen words -- ‘Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech or of the press’ -- were not enforced by the Supreme Court in favor of any would-be speaker or publisher until 1931, 141 years (after the First Amendment was added to the Constitution.)
“And then in the next 60 years -- thanks to creative, bold, sensible judges who understood what this country was about -- the First Amendment was in essence applied to a whole vast series of aspects of our lives. So we do have protection of the courts when we exercise our right to say something different, unusual, in conflict with majority opinion.”
It took courage all down the line to make the First Amendment work, Mr. Lewis says. He draws lively examples from all walks of life from Supreme Court Justices to people on the street, from the beginning of the Republic to the present day.
“Courage is crucial in the process that makes freedom of expression work, because it’s all very well to say that in theory you're entitled to speak,” Mr. Lewis says. “(Justices) Holmes and Brandeis began dissenting from repressive decisions in 1919 and dissented right through the '20's before the majority finally agreed with them in upholding free speech. It took courage in the South in the days of racial segregation and discrimination. People were killed when Dr. King and his colleagues stood up and protested and marched. It took a lot of courage on the part the publisher (of The New York Times) to say ‘Yes, let's publish (the Pentagon Papers).’"
Just having free speech is not enough, as has become all to clear in recent years.
“After the Iraq War had been on a year or two, the Washington Post and The New York Times published open apologies. Editorial comments that said, ‘We were asleep at the switch. We didn't do the job we were supposed to do. We didn't look into the claims made about Iraqi -- secret weapons of mass destruction and so on and so on -- and we let it all happen without challenging it.’”
The sovereign people are never passive in what happens in the courts, either, he insists, eager for us all to put our freedom of expression to work.
“It’s a two-way street. People have to be involved because the courts are ‘just’ in their nature. Judges are not going to stray too far from what the public believes. Judges with their eloquence can inform public opinion, as they aroused public opinion on the side of free speech. But the public can also provide the foundation for judges to build on, a belief in freedom.
“Most people might not be too comfortable with the idea that they have to learn from your opposing view but that's why we have a Constitution.”


As sovereigns of our own nation, it’s not enough to have the freedom to know what’s going on. We must demand that those responsible to us for telling us what’s really going on, do so.
We extend boundless thanks to Mr. Lewis for his clearly articulation of the living, breathing, oft-threatened nature of our freedoms, particularly the freedom of expression. Long may it live.

Related Links

Freedom for the Thought That We Hate: A Biography of the First Amendment is published by Basic Books.
Many of our guests have expressed concern about the erosion of the quality of journalism. Included are:  cultural critics Neal Gabler and Curtis White, former CNN president Tom Johnson and reporter Bonnie Anderson
Valued practitioners of the art and craft of journalism include:  the late David Halberstam, Haynes Johnson, Tim Weiner, Richard Ben Cramer, Sir Harold Evans, Gay Talese, Peter Galbraith, Thomas Laird, Sandra Mackey and Don Oberdorfer.
In The Terror Dream, Susan Faludi examines the complicity of the media in perpetuating an ersatz American Myth.
Though a member of the British Parliament (abstaining) Gerry Adams tells how for years the British media would allow neither his face or his voice to appear.
John Dean shows the many abuses of democracy by the Republican Party, unreported by mainsteam media.
Ann Florini argues for the essential importance of transparency in building democratic institutions around the world.
Among others, Arianna Huffington has created an alternative medium.
Edward J. Larson puts modern American media in historical perspective with his accounting of the Presidential election of 1800.
... and, here's a little background information on Paula Gordon and Bill Russell, the Program co-hosts.

This Program was recorded on Thursday, February 14, 2008 in Atlanta, Georgia, US

Tags: Anthony Lewis biography of the First Amendment Constitution First Amendment free speech Freedom for the Thought That We Hate freedom of expression journalism news popular sovereignty self-government